Providence approves first state-sanctioned safe injection site in Rhode Island

A Rhode Island city has approved the first state-sanctioned safe injection site, a place where people can use heroin and other illegal drugs and be revived if they overdose.

The Providence City Council voted Thursday to establish the site that will be run by a nonprofit and funded with money from opioid settlement money. It is expected to open later this year and be run by the harm reduction organization Project Weber/RENEW and VICTA. Among the services provided will be food and showers, access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, case management and housing support as well as HIV testing.

“I am grateful to Weber/RENEW for the vision, advocacy, and hard work they have put into making Rhode Island’s first harm reduction center a reality,” Council President Rachel Miller said in a statement.

Miller, who said she toured the facility a few weeks ago, added that she was confident the center “will save lives and prioritize the well-being of city residents” as it connects people to “healthcare, counseling, and outpatient services.”

Supporters contend that safe injection sites, also called overdose prevention centers or harm reduction centers, can save lives and connect people with addiction treatment, mental health services and medical care. Opponents worry the sites encourage drug use. The number of drug overdose deaths nationally was estimated at 112,127 for the 12 months ending in Aug. 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is up slightly from 109,680 for the year 2022.

“The unanimous vote by the Providence City Council is a historic moment for public health in the United States,” said Brandon Marshall, a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health who is leading a research project on overdose prevention sites. “The council clearly recognizes that our current efforts to stopping overdose deaths aren’t sufficient and that new harm reduction approaches are urgently needed.”

The Providence site is the first sanctioned by the state and joins two other safe injection sites currently open in New York. Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee signed the measure into law in 2021, which allows the opening of the centers with local approval.

States including Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico have considered allowing them. Last month, the Vermont House passed a bill that would allow for the creation of overdose prevention centers in the state that would include safe injection sites.